Scientist Gets Research Donations From Crowd Funding What do you do when you're a scientist and you have no job and no money for your research? If you're Ethan Perlstein, you try crowd funding. He raised $25,000 to investigate where the drug methamphetamine is stored in the brain.

Scientist Gets Research Donations From Crowd Funding

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You've heard of entrepreneurs raising money online to start a business. Well, say you're a scientist studying how drugs affect the brain. You need money for the research, so you make a video asking for donations and post it to YouTube.

That's not exactly how science is supposed to work. But NPR's Joe Palca says it might just be working anyway. It's the latest installment of his project "Joe's Big Idea."

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: This is a story about a sharp, young scientist named Ethan Perlstein. He's interested in doing something about mental illness and addiction, but he needs a lot more basic information about the brain before he can invent a new drug or treatment. Now, most of the time the federal government funds the basic biomedical research in this country. But it's getting harder and harder to snag one of those government research grants. So Perlstein said, hmm, maybe there's a different way.


PALCA: This three-minute video isn't going to the government. It's going straight to you.


PALCA: The idea of crowd-funding isn't new; you've heard of Kickstarter. It's being used to raise money for all sorts of projects. Let's say you're an electronic band from New York, and you need money to make a new album.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) This voice is calling over...

PALCA: Or you have a bakery in Liverpool, England, and you need some dough to buy a new oven. You could crowd fund.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: At the very heart of this project is an oven to bake the breads and cakes. And that's where you come in...

PALCA: When Ethan Perlstein first heard about crowd funding a couple years ago...

ETHAN PERLSTEIN: I thought, what a cool idea. It didn't occur to me instantly that one could do this for science.

PALCA: But he decided to give it a shot. And it was a good time to try something new. A five-year fellowship at Princeton was ending, and he was feeling frustrated.

PERLSTEIN: Look at the numbers. Forty-two is the age of the average - getting the first big grant. Forty-two is the average age. I'm 33. I'm sorry, I don't want to wait around. Academia is not that - I don't want to go to that length.

PALCA: So he figured, maybe crowd-funding was another way to keep doing the science he cared about.

PERLSTEIN: I want to know how brain drugs work, and I want to know this because I want to treat brain diseases. That's sort of the - you know, the simple message.

PALCA: And there's a particular reason why Ethan chose this topic.

PERLSTEIN: My mom passed away 10 years ago. And she was mentally ill and also, an addict. I mean, as I reflect on it, the more I remember, you know, kind of growing up, my mom always kind of joking to me - oh, well one day, you're going to be a famous scientist, and you're going to figure out what's wrong with me; you're going to figure out - you know. So I guess, yeah, I think talking about this now actually makes me think more deeply about why: Why am I really working on this, and not that? And it's good to know why 'cause I think that contributes, actually, to a sense of purpose.

PALCA: Purpose, sure. But with no money and no job, he turned to crowd funding.


PALCA: The video describes an experiment he wants to do. He wants to find out where the drug called methamphetamine goes in the brain. Knowing where methamphetamine goes should help in understanding drug addiction.


PALCA: Hold on a second. It's time for a little reality check. Ethan figured the most he could raise by crowd funding was $25,000. And $25,000 doesn't take you very far down the path of discovery in biomedical research, these days. Even a small lab will have a budget of more than $100,000 a year. But Ethan decided it was better than nothing, although he knew even reaching $25,000 would be a struggle.

PERLSTEIN: In order the make this campaign work, Danny and I had to hustle.

DANIEL KOROSTYSHEVSKY: OK, my name is Daniel Korostyshevsky.

PALCA: Korostyshevsky is Perlstein's partner in this escapade. Usually, when people support a musician or a baker, they get an album or a loaf of bread as a reward. All Ethan and Danny could offer was a chance to watch, and comment, as a scientific project unfolded. They had no idea if that would be a big enough draw.

To get the word out, to build anticipation, Ethan blogged about the project, tweeted about the project; and the pair made personal appearances at conferences and meet-ups.

KOROSTYSHEVSKY: My pitch mainly was the novelty of funding science through this new model.

PALCA: And he was relentless.

KOROSTYSHEVSKY: Some people heard me talk about it over 20 times, probably.

PALCA: They were scientists-turned-science hucksters. Their campaign became an obsession. And in the middle of all this, Ethan got married and went on his honeymoon, to Hawaii. He didn't exactly lavish his new bride with attention.

PERLSTEIN: You know, she would go sunbathe or something, and I would send some emails.

PALCA: After the honeymoon - and I'm happy to say Ethan is still married - the campaign officially started Oct. 4, on a Web site called Rocket Hub. The frequency of the tweets picked up.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: The time for a small science revolution is now.

PALCA: Is how one tweet went. Ethan says when the campaign got under way, contributions started rolling in. And he thought...

PERLSTEIN: Oh, my God. We're going to just - we're going to crush this in two weeks.

PALCA: But then things slowed down - a lot. Days went by with maybe one, maybe two contributions.

PERLSTEIN: We got demoralized a bit about halfway, when we realized uh-oh, we're not - halfway of the campaign is done, but we're not at 50 percent.

PALCA: Money kept trickling in but with three days left, they still had more than $5,000 to go. People who'd done other crowd-funding campaigns told Ethan there'd be a surge at the end. But he was still...

PERLSTEIN: Absolutely nervous because I was looking at the numbers and said, we've never raised $5,000 in a day. But that's what we're going to need to do.

PALCA: Another tweet.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: We have 24 hours to raise the rest - less than $5,000. Take us home.

PALCA: On the night of that final day, Ethan and Danny waited in their separate apartments, like two candidates waiting for election results.

KOROSTYSHEVSKY: We were just all plastered to our phones, refreshing. My wife was - every couple of minutes, we got another one!

PERLSTEIN: I knew how frequently we were getting donations because I was getting an email every time it happened. Starting around 3 p.m. the last day, I was getting an email every five minutes.

PALCA: Twenty-five dollar donation, $50 donation, $10 donation.

PERLSTEIN: It was just going from drip, drip, drip for weeks to now, just this stream was flowing in.

KOROSTYSHEVSKY: Everybody was sitting, biting their nails. And I remember at like, 1 o'clock - I guess, New York a.m., it hit; congratulations, your project has been funded. I just had a - collective sigh of relief. (Sighs loudly)

PALCA: The final total: $25,460.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: It's done. We did it.

PALCA: Ethan Perlstein worked his butt off to raise $25,000. To put that number in perspective, the National Institutes of Health spends about $30 billion a year on biomedical research. So $25,000, seriously? Is this going to make any difference in research funding in this country?

PERLSTEIN: I can't predict. I won't predict. But I do predict that there will be way more prototyping, way more innovation; and people will be pulling off more stupendous sums.

PALCA: Well, it turns out he's right about that. Since Perlstein's campaign ended, two crowd-funded projects aimed at studying the bacteria that live in our bodies have both raised around 10 times what Ethan raised.

Joe Palca, NPR News.


WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow, Joe looks at what kind of science gets crowd-funding support.

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